Thursday, January 8, 2009

Umm...plant more trees maybe?...Terra preta?..Carbon Farming?

How humans cooled the earth -- 500 years ago


One of the tell-tale signs of a really thought-provoking book is that soon after reading it, you start seeing its thesis replicated everywhere you look. So it has been with one of the tomes I referred to in yesterday's post "Polynesian Chickens in Peru and other Mysteries," Charles Mann's "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."

The massive depopulation of the Americas via smallpox, hepatitis and other diseases introduced by Westerners (perhaps as much as 95 percent of the existing population died in vast pandemics) and the large landscape-altering scale of agriculture practiced across the "New World" by pre-Columbian cultures are two of the big themes of "1491." Both popped up in a presentation made by two scientists at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union last December. (Thanks to MongaBay for the tip.)

The scientists contend that after the die-off, massive reforestation on abandoned agricultural land occurred on a large enough scale to contribute significantly to the period of global cooling between 1500 and 1750 known as the "Little Ice Age."

After examining soil samples and sediment cores from numerous locations in Central and South America, Richard Nevle, a visiting scholar at Stanford's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, and Dennis Bird, also from Stanford, concluded that the reforestation sequestered as much as 10 to 50 percent of the carbon necessary to cool the earth. Up until 1500, the soil samples showed a steady increase in charcoal content, likely generated from human-caused fire used to clear forest. After 1500, the scientists discovered a drastic drop in charcoal content. No more burning.

The scientists acknowledge that reforestation was just one factor in contributing to global cooling. It may not even have been the most critical factor. But the research is sobering nonetheless, in its hint as to humanity's power to alter the fundamental characteristics of life on this planet, long before we were burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow. We did it back then, we're doing it now, and maybe, just maybe, if we exert our collective will in the proper direction, we can fix our mistakes.

Let's just hope it doesn't require another vast die-off to set things to rights.


  1. I thought these updates and endorsements may interest you,

    Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

    Below are my current news & Links to major developments;

    Erich J. Knight
    540 289 9750

    Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!

    The IBI Announces Success in Having Biochar Considered as a Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Tool;

    POZNAN, Poland, December 10, 2008 - The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) announces that the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has submitted a proposal to include biochar as a mitigation and adaptation technology to be considered in the post-2012-Copenhagen agenda of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A copy of the proposal is posted on the IBI website at
    The International Biochar Initiative (IBI).

    Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
    Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

    Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

    Please put this (soil) bug in your colleague's ears. These issues need to gain traction among all the various disciplines who have an iron in this fire.

    I also have been corresponding with Michael Pollan ( NYT Food Columnist, Author ) to do a follow up story.

    Since the NGM cover reads "WHERE FOOD BEGINS" , I thought this would be right down his alley and focus more attention on Mann's work.
    It's what Mann hasn't covered that I thought should interest any writer as a follow up article;

    Biochar data base;

    NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.

    The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

    Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

    Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

    This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    In a recent National Public Radio interview, Michael Pollan talks about how he was approached by a Democratic party staffer about his New York Times article, The"Farmer & an open letter to the next president concerning U.S. agriculture/energy policy. The staffer wanted Pollan to summarize the article into a page or two to get it into the hands of Barack Obama. Pollan declined, saying that if he could have said everything that needed to be said in two pages, he wouldn't have written 8000 words.

    Michael Pollan is well briefed about Biochar technology, but did not include it in his "Farmer & Chief" article to President Obama, (Which he did read & cited in a speech) but I'm sure Biochar will be his 8001th word to him.

    540 289 9750

    Total CO2 Equivalence:
    Once a commercial bagged soil amendment product, every suburban household can do it,
    The label can tell them of their contribution, a 40# bag = 150# CO2 = 160 bags / year to cover my personal CO2 emissions. ( 20,000 #/yr , 1/2 Average )

    But that is just the Carbon!
    I have yet to find a total CO2 equivalent number taking consideration against some average field N2O & CH4 emissions. The New Zealand work shows 10X reductions.If biochar proves to be effective at reducing nutrient run-off from agricultural soils, then there will accordingly be a reduction in downstream N2O emissions.

    This ACS study implicates soil structure as main connection to N2O soil emissions;

    Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;



    665 - III.


    Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
    The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.

    Company News & EU Certification

    Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

    EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
    Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed

    Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

    Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
    Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
    Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
    Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
    Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
    Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

    There is list of the additional beneficial effects of the 3R FORMULATED BIOCHAREU DOSSIER for permit administration and summary of the results from 4 different Authorities who executed different test programme is under construction
    I suggest these independent and accredited EU relevant Authority permit field tests results will support the further development of the biochar application systems on international level, and providing case evidence, that properly made and formulated (plant and/or animal biomass based) biochars can meet the modern environmental - agricultural - human health inspection standards and norm, while supporting the knowledge based economical development.

    We work further on to expand not only in the EU but in the USA as well. My Cincinnati large scale carbonization project is progressing, hopefully the first industrial scale 3R clean coal - carbon plant will be ready in 2009.

    Sincerely yours: Edward Someus (environmental engineer)
    EMAIL 1:
    EMAIL 2:

    Carbon Diversion is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.

    Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;

    October 28, 2008

    U.S. Department of Agriculture to Evaluate CQuest™ Biochar

    Non-Funded Cooperative Agreement Signed

    The objective of the biochar research is to quantify the effects of amending soils with CQuest™ Biochar on crop productivity, soil quality, carbon sequestration and water quality. Field trials will involve incorporation of biochar in replicated field plots and on-farm strip trials with monitoring of crop yields, soil quality, water quality, emissions of greenhouse gasses, and soil carbon sequestration. Laboratory studies will involve amending soils with biochar and quantifying changes in soil quality and microbial activity during incubations.

    Biochar will be shipped from Dynamotive's West Lorne facility to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) locations in Iowa, South Carolina, Idaho, Washington, and other ARS locations. Initial results are expected during the 2009 growing season.

  2. Erich,
    Thanks for your lengthy promotional piece / comment for biochar citing Mann's article (which is referenced and quoted in several earlier posts on the blog). I've read Mann's book and many other stories about biochar (I also had previously posted Pollan's article in its entirety the day it was printed in the NYT). However, I'm not yet convinced that the process is superior to biological conversion of atmospheric carbon into humus such as that promoted by Carbon Farmers of America. They suggest a conversion rate of 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into roughly 1,000 pounds of soil organic matter (not to mention the yields from such soils).

    While I understand your infatuation with biochar I'm not sure that it is not the only, nor necessarily the best, way to get the carbon into the soil. If farmers can achieve comparable carbon sinks WITHOUT BURNING the carbon first then that's the approach I'd move toward. I'd be happy to publish your evidence to the contrary. Have you compared the methods? I've thought the best place to apply biochar is in soils that have relatively little biological activity such as tropical soils where the carbon is held mostly in the biomass above the ground and not so much as in cooler climates where soil storages are much higher. If you have comparisons of the two let me know what you find as many readers would be pleased to know the details.


  3. Re: Name Change

    Hi Folks,
    Due to a split with Carbon Diversion, and name change to
    EcoTechnologies, I must update this posting.
    EcoTechnologie's research projects are going with them, the
    EcoTechnologies Group. They plan to fulfill the research goals
    regardless of the split.


    Jeff Wallin
    Chief Business Development Officer
    EcoTechnologies Group, LLC
    1125 Lancaster Avenue
    Berwyn, PA 19312
    Mobile: (954) 309-8721
    Fax: (610) 993-9938
    Skype: jeffwallin

    > They will have a large unit up and running by April in Tennessee,

    > EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations for field
    trials ; NC
    > State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U, JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with
    > Dr.Jeffrey Novak Jeff.Novak@... who is coordinating ARS Biochar
    > research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding
    > unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety
    of soils
    > and climates.
    > Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with
    > Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;
    > Erich